As Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Miami and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York shivered while waiting for the official House of Representatives photo on a cold November morning outside the U.S. Capitol, Donna Shalala was nice and toasty.
Freshman members of Congress were required to ditch their jackets for the group photo, so Shalala, ever the Miamian, waited until the last possible second to join the group without layers in the 30-degree weather.
She’s used to Washington.
Shalala, 77, who will become the second-oldest first-year member of Congress in U.S. history, greets constituents and fellow lawmakers with the slogan, “I may be a freshman, but I’m not a rookie.” She claims to have found a 15-minute commute from her Georgetown condo to Capitol Hill, a product of her years of working within the highest levels of government and preference for rising early.
After a long career as President Bill Clinton’s Health and Human Services Secretary, leading the University of Miami and a stint as the head of the Clinton Foundation, Shalala is excited to become a low-ranking cog in a 435-person lawmaking body that recently earned a lower approval rating than cockroaches and traffic jams.
“I’m the only one walking around saying this is going to be fun. Everyone else looks tense,” Shalala said.
At least in official channels, Shalala won’t have much power. She can’t lead a committee as a first-year member, and ascending the leadership rung takes time. She hasn’t been assigned to any committees yet, but is looking to sit on the Energy and Commerce Committee or another committee that is likely to address healthcare, though major policy changes are unlikely until at least 2021.
“Certainly, in the first year I’m trying to stay focused,” Shalala said. “The people in this district have a handful of things that they’d like us to do. I listened to the people’s priorities and they made it very clear that they’re deeply concerned about healthcare and obviously about immigration, the environment and sensible gun control.”
But Shalala’s advantage over her peers is that she already knows the key players. Nancy Pelosi has already assured Shalala that she will be a part of any high-level policy discussions related to healthcare, Shalala said.
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